The Mormonization of America
June 26, 2012
Stephen Mansfield appears frequently on The Sean Hannity Show, Fox and Friends, CNN Newsroom, MSNBC New Live, and other programs to talk about politics, religion and pop culture. He is also the best-selling author of The Faith of Barack Obama and The Faith of George W. Bush as well as other celebrated biographies and nonfiction titles. He lives in Nashville, Tenn. and Washington, DC.
In 1950, there were just over a million Mormons in the world. Most of these were located in the Intermountain West of the United States, a region of almost lunar landscape between the Rocky Mountains to the East and the Cascades and the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the West. The religion was still thought of as odd by most Americans. There had been famous Mormons like the occasional U.S. Senator or war hero, but these were few and far between.
Then, in 1951, a man named David O. McKay became the “First President” of the Latter-day Saints and inaugurated a new era. He often wore white suits, had an infectious laugh, and felt the need to appeal to the world outside the Church.
Empowered by his personal popularity and by his sense that an opportune moment had come, McKay began refashioning the Church’s image. He also began sharpening its focus. His famous challenge to his followers was, “Every Member a Missionary!” And the faithful got busy.
By 1984, the dynamics of LDS growth were so fine-tuned that influential sociologist Rodney Stark made the mind-blowing prediction that the Latter-Day Saints would have no fewer than 64 million members and perhaps as many as 267 million by 2080.
By 1984, the dynamics of LDS growth were so fine-tuned that influential sociologist Rodney Stark made the mind-blowing prediction that the Latter-Day Saints would have no fewer than 64 million members and perhaps as many as 267 million by 2080. This may be why in 1998 the Southern Baptists Convention held its annual meeting in Salt Lake City. The Mormons—a misguided cult in the view of most traditional Christians, most Baptists in particular—had to be stopped.
They weren’t. Four years after the Baptists besieged Temple Square, the Winter Olympic Games came to Salt Lake City. This was in 2002 and it is hard to exaggerate what this meant to the Latter-Day Saints. A gifted Mormon leader, Mitt Romney, rescued the games after a disastrous bidding scandal. A sparkling Mormon city hosted the games.
What followed was the decade of the new millennium. Mormons seemed to be everywhere, seemed to be exceptional in nearly every arena, seemed to have moved beyond acceptance by American culture to domination of American culture. At least, this was what some feared at the time.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had risen to unexpected heights in American society because the Mormon religion creates what can benevolently be called a Mormon Machine—a system of individual empowerment, family investment, local church (ward and state level) leadership, priesthood government, prophetic endowment, Temple sacraments and sacrificial financial endowment of the holy Mormon cause.
These hallmark values and behaviors—the habits that distinguish Mormons in the minds of millions of Americans—grow naturally from Mormon doctrine. They are also the values and behaviors of successful people. Mormon doctrine is inviting, the community it produces enveloping and elevating, the lifestyle it encourages empowering in nearly ever sense. Success, visibility, prosperity and influence follow. This is the engine of the Mormon ascent.
Progress: To Pass the Tests of Life
In Mormonism, the Heavenly Father does not create matter; he organizes it. Mormons are meant to do likewise: be like the Heavenly Father in bringing order to the chaotic and lonely world, thus proving themselves worthy. Laying aside the spiritual content of this vision for a movement, the fact that progress and achievement are at the heart of a Mormon’s purpose on earth helps explain why Mormons are so adept at creating, leading and even rescuing institutions. It is what they understand themselves to be on this earth to do.
Family: For Time and All Eternity
In LDS theology, the family is not only a sacred institution—something many religions claim—but it is an eternal institution. Mormons believe families existed together before they came to this world—in a state called “premortality”—and they will exist together as families throughout all eternity if they qualify.
Education: Training the Saints to Lead
Mormon education begins early and reaches tremendous heights. The Church Educational System (CES) offers a program for younger children, operates a “seminary” for high school students to provide an “eternal Mormon perspective” on what secular schools teach, and then maintains an “institute” that challenges college students to a deeper faith. The LDS educational vision coalesces at Brigham Young University. Here, the Mormon devotion to education meets the calling to “prove worthy” and turns toward the challenge of the modern world. Most BYU students are upper tier academically, most are bilingual, most posses proven leadership gifts and most intend to do graduate work. From all these educational processes, the message is clear: “We intend to lead.”
Patriotism: The Calling of the U.S. and the Free Market
Then there is the fiery patriotism inherent in Mormonism, which springs from the LDS certainty that the United States is divinely ordained. They draw this, first, from the Book of Mormon assertion that at least some of the ancient tribes in the New World were members of God’s chosen people, the Jews of Israel. That Jesus Christ appeared in America after His resurrection from the dead is confirmation of a special destiny. That the Book of Mormon was revealed in New York not long after the nation was born strengthens this view, as does the fact that the Garden of Eden, the spot upon which Jesus Christ will return to earth, and the headquarters of the true Church of Jesus Christ are all in the United States. Even the U.S. Constitution is believed to be of divine origin.
All of these—the ideal of progress, the power of family, the priority of education and devotion to a divinely ordained America with its free market heritage—have helped to fashion the engine of the Mormon advance in American society, the aid of the spiritual claims aside. They have each helped to create the celebrated “Mormon Movement.”
Adapted from the upcoming book The Mormonizing of America: How the Mormon Religion Became a Dominant Force in Politics, Entertainment, and Pop Culture (Worthy Publishing) by Stephen Mansfield. Used with permission.